Caitlin Finn always has loved to doodle. Her mom figured it was just a stress reliever.

But now Caitlin has turned her habit into a book: "Harold the Misfit," about an unusual boy shunned by his classmates until he rescues them from harm.

Finn, a 21-year-old college student from Lake Elmo, was a senior at Stillwater Area High School when she drew a sketch that caught her mother's attention.

"I was looking at this character and I said, 'This is the cutest character. You should write a children's book,'" recalled Michelle Finn, a second-grade teacher at Eagle Point Elementary School in Oakdale.

"I said, 'Right now, there's a lot of focus on bullying in the schools, and this would make a cool character.'"

A quick study

Within three weeks after her mother's observation, Caitlin said, "I probably had the whole thing written out ...

"The hard part was just getting all of the drawings done."

Even harder was finding a publisher. Finn took the book to a printer, had 500 copies printed herself and started visiting schools to promote it.

Last summer, Trafford Publishing of Bloomington, Ind., responded to one of Finn's many e-mails and agreed to publish unlimited copies for $400, she said.

It came out in September and is available from a variety of sources online, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

The book's main character, Harold, is different -- really different. He has a leopard's face, a deer's antlers, a turtle's torso, one wing, a zebra-patterned ear, a lobster's claw, a dog's paw and tail and a lizard's foot.

The rest of the kids at Harold's school unanimously reject him because of his appearance.

When he reached the age of five

His parents sent him off to school,

And to all the other kids,

Harold was far too "un-cool."

On a class field trip to outer space, the spaceship malfunctions and Harold uses his unique characteristics to protect and save his classmates. Embarrassed, they realize that the kid they had shunned is pretty cool after all.

They hoisted Harold on their shoulders shouting,

"Hip, Hip, Hooray!"

And ever since then, Harold is the first one called to play.

At many elementary schools, teachers hold writers' workshops with their students, discussing the strategies that go into producing a book, Michelle Finn said. During workshops at Eagle Point, Caitlin went from classroom to classroom to talk about her book and use a whiteboard to show the students how to draw Harold.

"The kids were very attentive," Michelle Finn said.

Caitlin also visited her alma mater in Stillwater to promote her self-published edition. "I sold all 500 pretty quickly, and people still wanted more," she said.

In the meantime, Finn enrolled at the University of Minnesota and then transferred to University of Wisconsin-River Falls to major in computer science and Spanish. She will graduate next year and go to work for Andersen Windows in Oak Park Heights in software and programming.

Now that the book is being published, Finn hopes to make enough money to invest in advertising and get it into stores. She plans to donate a portion of any profits she makes to children's health causes and would love Harold to be made into a stuffed animal to accompany the book.

"Another goal of mine is to promote my book in elementary schools because I want children to understand the message of the book -- to embrace your inner 'misfit' and those of others," she wrote in an e-mail.

"Bullying is such a problem nowadays ... that the earlier the message is spread that uniqueness is a good thing, may help reduce the amount of bullying in schools."

Finn's high school English teacher, Lori Stippel, said Finn came into her senior-level class a lovely writer who worked painstakingly to improve her work.

"Caitlin always had that gift of being able to have a voice that was both creative and precise, and she was likewise always willing to continue to cultivate that," Stippel said.

"She's such a beautiful illustrator, and I do believe that because of the whimsical nature of the drawings, I think it would do a really lovely job of inviting [children] into the text. I think it would create a great opportunity for conversation."

Finn is not sure how many more books have sold because the publisher releases the tally quarterly and will not have figures until December. Based on orders, however, she believes it has been more than 100.

"If this book is successful at all, I would love to make a sequel. That would be really fun," she said.

Finn concludes the book with a little advice that she appears to have taken herself:

So before you're quick to judge or try to be someone you're not ...

Embrace who you are and show the world what you've got.

Nancy Crotti is a Twin Cities freelance writer.